Monday, June 26, 2017

An ancient secret: Act as if

Several ancient cultures and religions taught the way to belief and personal identity was not through contemplation, but rather though action, Brett McKay writes. They understood the power that our outward actions have on our inner psyche.
According to the Torah, when Moses stood atop Mount Sinai and presented his people the stone tablets with the Law of Jehovah inscribed upon them, the Hebrews spoke in unison “na’aseh v’nishma,” which means “We will do and we will understand.” 
Basically the Hebrews covenanted that they would live the law first, in the hope that through living the law they would eventually come to understand it. Today, this statement represents a Jewish person’s commitment to live all the Law of Moses even if they don’t fully understand the reasons behind each commandment. Modern rabbis teach that na’aseh v’nishma is how one comes to understand God and His laws for man. By living the outward ordinances, a change happens within.
Esquire editor and self-proclaimed “Jew in the same sense that the Olive Garden is Italian food,” A.J. Jacobs put the principle of na’aseh v’nishma to the test in his hilarious memoir, A Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. Jacobs didn’t just try to live the Ten Commandments perfectly for a year, but also the over 600 obscure laws found throughout the Bible, like not shaving the corners of your beard, blowing a shofar before prayer, and not sitting where a menstruating woman has sat (that one got him in trouble with his wife).
Coming from a scientific and agnostic family, Jacobs saw many of the rituals and laws of his cultural heritage as strange and irrational. But after a year of trying to live according to the Bible, Jacobs felt his attitude shift about religious rituals and even the divine. While he didn’t convert from being a secular Jew into a full-on theist, Mr. Jacobs now considers himself a “reverent agnostic,” who believes “that whether or not there’s a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred.” Jacobs credits his attitude shift to living Biblical principles even when he wasn’t sure of the reason behind them; he acted first without understanding to become a more reverent person.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle taught something similar to na’aseh v’nishma in his Nicomachean Ethics. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle lays out his idea of the “Good Life” and how to obtain it. For Aristotle the Good Life meant living a life of virtue. Unlike some Greek philosophers who believed that virtuous living came only from pondering upon the virtues, Aristotle believed that understanding wasn’t enough. To become virtuous, you had to act virtuous.
But the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g., men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.
Virtues don’t come through simply thinking about them. You have to “exercise them.” Aristotle’s promise is this: if you want a virtue, act as if you already have it and then it will be yours. Change comes through action. Act first, then become.
Modern psychologists have a theory on why acting-to-become is such an effective way of changing who you are and how you feel about yourself: cognitive dissonance. When there’s a conflict between your self-perception and how you’re actually behaving, you experience dissonance or tension, and your brain moves to close the gap by shifting how you feel about yourself to match how you’re acting.
Act as if. 

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